Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reunited online in live relay

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Vincent Van Gogh painted five of his most famous works, the Sunflower series, from August 1888 to January 1889 when he was living in Arles in the South of France. Each of the paintings depict a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase using three shades of yellow (there’s blue in the backgrounds and in some accents). This was a deliberate choice by the artist, his attempt to convey the vibrancy and variety of the flower with the color most characteristic of it. He also used thick, layered brushstrokes, a bold impasto that captured the dimension of the sunflower head and seeds as well as their color.

Van Gogh had explored sunflowers before. When he lived in Paris with his brother Theo in 1887, he painted a series of still lifes of sunflowers, two to four cut blooms withering on the floor. They were very different in palette and mood to the bright bouquets of the Arles works. In a letter from August of 1888, Vincent wrote to his brother that he’d returned to the subject with a new approach:

“I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers. […]

Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, as you know, there’s such a beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go”

The new series of sunflowers was meant to be as welcoming and warm as the one he fondly recalled from the shop next door. Van Gogh was expecting a guest in a few months, his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. He had an idea that they might live and work together sharing a studio, a studio that would be decorated entirely with sunflowers, hence his plan for a dozen paintings in the series. He never got that far, nor did the two artists get a studio together, but Gaugin did come to visit him in the aptly named Yellow House at Arles, and Van Gogh hung two of the sunflower paintings on the walls of his room.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888-9. The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., Collection, 1963. Photo courtesy the Philadelphia Musuem of Art.Paul loved them so much he point-blank asked Van Gogh if he could keep one. Vincent wanted to make his friend happy — they had fought during Gaugin’s stay and he left earlier than planned on a rancorous note — but he was so desperately strapped for cash and so concerned that Theo, who was engaged to be married, have some money to make a home for his new bride, that Paul’s request put him in an awkward position. He wrote to Theo that he would let Gaugin have one of the sunflowers and redo it so Theo could exhibit it and perhaps sell it.

You’ll see that these canvases will catch the eye. But I’d advise you to keep them for yourself, for the privacy of your wife and yourself.

It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things:

“that — … that’s… the flower.”

You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.

He didn’t know how right he was. His Arles Sunflowers are now in top museums on three continents: The National Gallery, London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Seiji Togo Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo. The five will be reunited for the first time in virtual space on August 14th in a Facebook Live event. Curators from each museum will speak for 15 minutes about the paintings in a globe-trotting relay dedicated to Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers.

This video from the National Gallery gives a brief introduction to the paintings and the #SunflowersLive event:

The Van Gogh Museum, meanwhile, has created a virtual tour of the Sunflowers so you can explore them at your leisure accompanied by Willem van Gogh, great-grandson of Theo van Gogh. They’re also the only one of the museums to have a fully zoomable high resolution image of their Sunflowers painting on their website (see the link above). You can get way, way up in the details of the work, and you can’t put a price on that especially with an artist like Van Gogh whose brushstrokes are so meaningful.

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Gainsborough’s Blue Boy to be conserved in public

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

The iconic painting by Thomas Gainsborough formally titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman but known worldwide as The Blue Boy will get its first thorough technical analysis and conservation at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The painting will be removed from public view on Tuesday, August 8th, and will first undergo preliminary analysis. That phase is scheduled to end on November 1st, after which conservators will use the new information to plan an extensive year-long conservation from September 2018 through September 2019. In total, Project Blue Boy will take two years.

The Blue Boy won’t be hidden from view all that time, however, because the year-long conservation will be done in the Thornton Portrait Gallery where the painting usually hangs. That will give visitors, who are probably there in the first place primarily to see the greatest jewel in The Huntington’s crown, a unique opportunity to observe experts at work conserving the art historical masterpiece.

The Blue Boy requires conservation to address both structural and visual concerns. The painting is so important and popular that it has been on almost constant display since The Huntington opened to the public almost 100 years ago. “The most recent conservation treatments have mainly involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep The Blue Boy on view as much as possible,” said Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator and co-curator of the exhibition. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.” According to O’Connell, there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, making the work vulnerable to loss and permanent damage; and the adhesive that binds the canvas to its lining is failing, meaning the painting does not have adequate support for long-term display. These issues and more will be addressed by Project Blue Boy.

In addition to contributing to scholarship in the field of conservation, the undertaking will likely uncover new information of interest to art historians. O’Connell will use a surgical microscope to closely examine the painting. To gather material information, she will employ imaging techniques including digital x-radiography, infrared reflectography, ultraviolet fluorescence, and x-ray fluorescence. The data from these analytical techniques will contribute to a better understanding of the materials Gainsborough procured to create The Blue Boy while at the same time revealing information about earlier conservation treatments.

“One area we’d like to better understand is, what technical means did Gainsborough use to achieve his spectacular visual effects?” said Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition. “He was known for his lively brushwork and brilliant, multifaceted color. Did he develop special pigments, create new materials, pioneer new techniques?” She and O’Connell will build upon clues gleaned from previous conservation projects to learn more. “We know from earlier x-rays that The Blue Boy was painted on a used canvas, on which the artist had begun the portrait of a man,” she said. “What might new technologies tell us about this earlier abandoned portrait? Where does this lost painting fit into his career? How does it compare with other portraits from the 1760s?” McCurdy also looks forward to discovering other anomalies that may become visible beneath the surface paint, and what they might indicate about Gainsborough’s painting practice.

Gainsborough painted the work in 1770 on his own initiative. No client commissioned it. The Blue Boy was Gainsborough’s first foray into creating a Van Dyck-style court portrait, hence the characteristic 17th century garb of silk knee breeches, doublet with slashed sleeves and lace collar. His aim was to prove himself against the standards of the previous century’s most illustrious portraitist to Britain’s royalty and nobility and he succeeded. The portrait was a great hit at the 1770 Royal Academy exhibition and Thomas Gainsborough, the son of a weaver whose clientele had been merchants and country squires, was now acclaimed on a par with Sir Anthony van Dyck, son of wealthy parents, child prodigy and portraitists to the aristocracy of Europe since he was 21 years old.

The identity of the sitter is unknown, but one possibility is that its first owner Jonathan Buttall, who was 18 in 1770, is the subject. He was the son of a prosperous businessman (raw iron and retail manufactured goods) and a good friend of Gainsborough’s. They bonded over their love of music and remained close friends until the artist’s death in 1788, so much so that at the end of his life Gainsborough asked Buttall to attend his funeral, an honor he accorded very few people even amongst his circle of friends of family.

The Blue Boy was sold to railway magnate Henry E. Huntington, founder of the museum that bears his name, in 1921 by British art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen who had acquired it that same year from the second Duke of Westminster. Huntington paid the greatest amount ever paid up until that time for a painting — $728,800, about $9 million today — and the sale generated massive publicity and protests. Back then, there was no law that could block export of an object of exceptional cultural significance so Britain lost The Blue Boy to California. It’s been hanging at The Huntington since the museum opened in 1928.

Duveen made a fortune matchmaking American plutocrats with the cultural patrimony of impoverished British aristocrats and would later become notorious for his slipshod, aggressive and damaging “restorations” of artworks to make them shiny (literally) before selling them. The Blue Boy did not escape his less than tender mercies. He told the press shortly after he bought the portrait from the Duke of Westminster that he planned to have it “cleaned and revarnished” before putting it on display. Perhaps Project Blue Boy will discover the remnants of Duveen’s interventions as well.

The Huntington has set up a website dedicated to Project Blue Boy where you can track the progress of the analysis and conservation of this iconic work of art.

The Blue Boy, (ca. 1770), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 48 3/4 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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St. Cuthbert’s treasure is back and better than ever

Friday, August 4th, 2017

The Treasures of St. Cuthbert, a collection of relics of the saint and his medieval sanctuary, have gone back on display at Durham Cathedral after six years out of public view. The exhibition is part of Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure project, an ambitious £11 million redesign that transformed the display spaces in the 11th century masterpiece of Norman architecture to showcase its exceptional collection including Anglo-Saxon carved stones, original copies of Magna Carta and the Forest Charter and illuminated gospels dating as far back as the 7th century. The new exhibition also opens to visitors previously inaccessible areas of the former monastery like the Monk’s Dormitory and the Great Kitchen, grand medieval rooms that managed against all odds to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the organizational, spiritual and iconoclastic upheaval of the Reformation, Cromwell’s suppression of the church and use of the cathedral as a POW camp for Scottish prisoners during the Civil War and a number of destructive architectural mutilations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Open Treasure experience has been delighting visitors since July 2016, but St. Cuthbert’s treasures are so delicate they require stringent conservation conditions. Conservators waited a full year, monitoring climactic conditions in the new permanent home for the saint’s relics to ensure they were ideal for their long-term preservation. On Saturday, July 29th, the Treasures of St. Cuthbert reopened in their new abode: the Cathedral’s extraordinary Great Kitchen, a massive space with an octagonal ceiling glorious enough to make numerologist angels weep. For centuries the kitchen produced food for hundreds of Benedictine monks and for the deans and canons that followed them after the Reformation. It was still in use as a kitchen well into the 1940s. That continuous use saved it for posterity and it is now one of exactly two surviving medieval monastery kitchens in the UK. (Thanks again for reducing all those monasteries to rubble, Henry VIII!)

Henry VIII’s dissolution minions are also responsible for the current condition of one of the most important relics on display. The Commissioners ordered that Saint Cuthbert’s tomb in the cathedral, one of the richest and most beloved pilgrimage sites in the country, be destroyed. The employed a local goldsmith sledgehammer Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, carved by the monks of the famous Lindisfarne Priory at the end of the 7th century A.D., open because they were sure there were treasures to be looted inside the wood of the coffin. There weren’t. All they got for their brutality was whatever satisfaction they derived from busting the greatest example of Anglo-Saxon woodwork in Britain to bits.

Saint Cuthbert was Prior of Lindisfarne when he died on March 20, 687. His cause of death is believed to have been tuberculosis. He was buried in the priory and slumbered peacefully for 11 years until the monks reopened the coffin and found his body had not decayed. The discovery of the incorrupt body launched the cult of Cuthbert and garnered him a sainthood. Unprepared for an intact body (they likely had planned to transfer his bones into a small ossuary only to find a fully enfleshed corpse instead), they hastily scared up a new coffin made of oak and carved with simple but elegant linear drawings of the Evangelists and their symbols, Christ, saints and angels. The figures are labelled in both Latin and Anglo-Saxon runes. These are the earliest carvings depicting Christ found outside of Rome.

When the Viking raiders struck the priory in the 9th century, the monks took Cuthbert’s coffin and his relics with them when they fled in 875. The traveled extensively, stopping at major cities along the way so pilgrims could flock to see the saint’s miraculous body. Cuthbert’s posthumous itinerancy came to a close in 995 when his remains were settled in Durham. Just over a century after that, his body, still in the Lindisfarne coffin, was placed into a new coffin and installed in a new shrine in the Norman cathedral.

After Henry’s pillage crew came away empty-handed from the destruction of the shrine, Cuthbert’s remains, still undecayed and still inside the damaged coffin, were placed inside yet another coffin and reburied in the cathedral. The tomb was opened again twice in the 19th century, mainly out of sheer curiosity. It was the first of these reopenings in 1827 that discovered the saint’s gold and garnet pectoral cross deep in the folds of his garments (turns out Henry’s Commissioners sucked at looting, despite their extensive experience in the field), a silver portable altar and Cuthbert’s elephant ivory comb in the coffin.

After the second reopening in 1899, the remains of the Lindisfarne coffin, now in fragments, were removed. Restoration attempts, one as recently as the 1980s, used damaging methods that today’s conservators eschew. Still, the coffin was on display for many years in Durham Cathedral, set high up so the carving was all but impossible to see in any kind of detail. The fragments have been re-conserved now, puzzled together using a non-invasive, reversible approach and put on display in a bespoke, climate-controlled case at eye level so visitors can revel in the unique decoration of the most important surviving wooden artifact from the Anglo-Saxon period.

Also on display in the Great Kitchen is the pectoral cross, one of the greatest and most significant examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork marking the transition from their traditional iconography and decorative style to Christianity and bearing the wear and tear of Cuthbert’s constant use of the piece. The comb, which looks a tad on the grubby side but must have been quite a fancy thing in the saint’s day because it was likely manufactured in North African in the 4th century, and the portable altar.

Original 12th c. sanctuary knocker. Photo courtesy Durham Cathedral.Then there are the artifacts associated with the shrine that aren’t directly connected to Saint Cuthbert in person, for example an incredibly rare group of embroidered silk and gold vestments donated to the shrine in the 10th century by King Athelstan and a magnificent 12th century knocker from the door of the sanctuary in the shape of the head of a leonine hellbeast complete with a little guy’s legs sticking out of the fearsome creature’s mouth. The legs are each devoured by the mouths of the double-headed snake which form the knocker itself.

There’s even a dragon-slaying sword, the Conyers Falchion, a 13th century sword that legend has it was used by Sir John Conyers to kill the Sockburn Worm. This is the story that inspired Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. Decorated with the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire on one side of the pommel and that of England on the other, the falchion was for centuries ceremonially presented to the new bishop of Durham when he first crossed the boundary into his diocese. The last bishop to be so fortunate is the current one, Bishop Paul Butler, who crossed the River Tees into his new diocese in 2014. From now on, the dragon-slaying sword is staying put in the Great Kitchen. Future bishops will have to make do with a replica.

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Oldest wooden railway section saved, displayed

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Willington Waggonway excavated in 2013. Photo by North News.In 2013, an excavation in advance of future construction at the site of the Neptune Shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne unearthed a unique survivor of Newcastle’s early industrial history: an 80-foot stretch of a wooden railway dating to the 18th century. This railway wasn’t used by trains as they hadn’t been invented yet. It transported wooden “waggons” (chaldrons) pulled by horses. Supported by the sturdy tracks which ran at a slight incline to take advantage of gravity, the waggons were able to carry far heavier loads of coal far more quickly from local collieries straight to the docks of the river Tyne. It was identified as a section of the Willington Waggonway built in 1785.

Detail of timbers in situ. Photo courtesy Beamish Transport Online.The railway has double height rails — a common feature in the Tyneside area where there was soggy terrain to overcome and hard wear on the tracks was a constant problem — and is made of an eclectic mixture of wood sources. There are rough-hewn sleepers that are basically intact tree limbs, cut and planed pine sleepers and repurposed ship planks.

It’s the most intact segment of wooden railway ever discovered and, thanks to the waterlogged riverside environment, the best preserved. Those elements alone would suffice to make it a find of international significance, but the Willington Waggonway has another remarkable feature: it’s the earliest Detail of wash hole section, lined with stone pavers. Photo courtesy Beamish Transport Online.railway built to the international standard gauge (4’8.5″) which spread from England’s 18th century wagon rails to its 19th century steam engines and was then exported around the world by the British Empire. It’s also the only railway ever found with a surviving “wash hole,” a stone basin in the track where wagon wheels were cleaned and soaked in water to prevent shrinkage and cracking from friction and heat. Wash holes were known from historical records, but this is the first one to be discovered.

Excavating the Willington Waggonway. Photo courtesy Beamish Transport Online.These precious archaeological remains were in danger from the moment they were unearthed. As soon as the timbers were exposed to the air, they began to decay. Organic materials that have been preserved for centuries in waterlogged soil need immediate conservation once they’re excavated to keep them from drying out, rotting and/or being devoured by an assortment of critters. You can’t leave them in situ unless you rebury them for their own protection, and because the site was going to be redeveloped, the reburied waggonway could easily have been damaged, even destroyed, by construction.

Willington Waggonway timbers in storage. Photo courtesy the Willington Waggonway Research Programme.With the clock ticking, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) was able to secure a grant of £20,000 from the Arts Council’s Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material (PRISM) Fund for the immediately removal and storage of a 20-foot section of the Willington Waggonway, timber and stonework. The National Railway Museum stepped into the breach and collected the remaining timbers. They are being conserved together with their TWAM brethren at the conservation laboratories of the York Archaeological Trust which has extensive expertise in and specialized equipment for the preservation of ancient wood.

York Archaeological Trust's specialized freeze dryer capable of holding pieces 5 meters long. Photo by Beamish Transport Online.Trust experts analyzed samples from the wood to determine their individual conditions and preservation needs. The diagnosis was that the timbers needed long-term soaking in a Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) bath followed by freeze-drying. The PEG replaces the water molecules in the wood with a waxy material that maintains the structure without contracting and expanding the way water does. Once the PEG has taken hold, a bout in the freeze-dryer finishes the job of sucking out the last drops of moisture, making the wood stable for display. The whole process can take up to 36 months.

Ian Panter, Head of Conservation, York Archaeological Trust said: “The conservation of the waggonway timbers has been a challenge, not because the wood was very decayed, but the opposite. Many of the timbers were very well preserved but with with pockets of more decay.

“This type of wood always represents a challenge but one which we relished getting to grips with. It is good to see something dating to the early stages of the industrial revolution being conserved, and this makes a refreshing change from the very ancient timbers that we’re usually involved with.

“Having personally been involved with the Lambton trackway, of similar date which was reburied, it is a step forward that something as important as the waggonway is being preserved for future generations.”

Eighty-seven of the timbers have been conserved already. They are now at the Regional Museum Store at Beamish where they are being studied for what they can tell us about 18th century railway construction and maybe even shipbuilding. A few of the preserved timbers, timbers awaiting conservation and stones from the wash hole went on display Friday at the Stephenson Railway Museum as part of the national Festival of Archaeology.

Not all of the timbers are out of danger yet. Fifty of them remain untreated and are at risk of decay unless another £10,000 can be secured to fund their conservation. A campaign with a target of 5,000 has been launched. You can donate to it here. Once the Willington Waggonway remains have been conserved and researched, the plan is to reconstruct as much of it as possible (mostly the intact 20-foot section) for permanent display at the Stephenson Railway Museum.

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Friendship-killing Boldre Hoard goes on display

Monday, July 31st, 2017

A hoard of 1,608 coins Roman coins discovered by metal detectorists in a field it Boldre, in the New Forest near Lymington, Hampshire, in 2014, has gone on public display for the first time at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington. The hoard dates to the 3rd century A.D. and contains bronze radiates from the second half of the 3rd century. The earliest coin in the group was minted under the reign of Trebonianus Gallus (249-51 A.D.). The most recent is barely 25 years older, struck in 276 in the waning days of the emperor Tacitus (275-6 A.D.). The bulk of the coins were found in the remains of a round vessel, 15 sherds from the bottom of the earthenware pot.

After slumbering underground for more than 1,700 years since its owner buried his savings, disturbed only by the farm equipment that likely broke the pot, the hoard has seen quite a bit of drama starting with the moment of its discovery. There were several metal detectorists scanning that field in Boldre on May 4th, 2014, among them two old friends Andy Aartsen and James Petts. Aartsen made the first discovery: 25-30 coins on their own. Then Petts hit the motherlode, finding the remains of the pot and its coin hoard of more than 1,500 pieces.

Aartsen had scanned that area earlier and gotten a signal but had moved on. According to the rules of the metal detecting club, if you walk away from a signal it counts as abandonment and the next guy gets to pick up where you left off, but Aartsen apparently thought his earlier signal granted him perpetual rights because he told Petts “Eff off, it’s mine.” That’s a quote from James Petts’ testimony at the coroner’s inquest that determined whether the coin hoard was official treasure by the standards of the Treasure Act of 1996, which is downright spicy compared to the usual testimony from British Museum and Portable Antiquities Scheme experts one encounters at treasure inquests.

The conflict caused a permanent rift between the former friends, and it really wasn’t about the money because bronze radiates aren’t big ticket items. The amount of the valuation that would be paid by the museum that acquired the hoard was around £8,000 to be split 50/50 by the finder and landowner. This fight was all about credit, who gets to be the official finder of the Boldre Hoard. Andy Aartsen wanted to be declared the sole finder; Petts wanted it declared a joint find of both men, which seems more than fair given that he found the vast majority of the hoard and the container. At the time of the inquest, the dispute was still ongoing and Central Hampshire Coroner Grahame Short suggested the two ex-friends might have to duke it out in court if they couldn’t come to an agreement. I couldn’t discover what the disposition their dispute was, but the articles about the new exhibition refer only to James Petts as the finder.

The British Museum seemed interested in acquiring the rarest of the coins — three coins struck under the rule of Marius who reigned for exactly 12 weeks in 269 A.D. — but that would have broken up the hoard. The St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery wanted to keep every coin and the pot together and put them on display a few miles away from where they were discovered and that was going to require some fast fundraising.

Rosalyn Goulding, of the museum, said the coins were an “exciting” find for the town.

“We haven’t had too much evidence of Roman activity here but this find helps us to build up a picture of settlement and agriculture,” she said.

“One of the coins is really interesting because it has an unrecorded reverse.

“The emperors would strike a series of coins and they each had a pattern to them – they would have similar things on the front and on the reverse – but this one had an altar on the back which has never before been seen on a Divus Victorious coin, or any coins issued by Victorious.”

Historian and television presenter Dan Snow who lives in the area launched the fundraising campaign last fall with a target of £30,000 ($40,000). Donations large and small came from private individuals, local businesses, organizations and grants from charitable trusts. When the January 31st deadline arrived, the campaign was just short of its target at £27,842.20. One of the donors, American Anglophile Richard Beleson, bumped up his already generous donation of £7,500 in matching funds to cover the shortfall.

Most of that money was not needed for the acquisition of the hoard itself, which was modestly valued. It was to be spent on conservation of the hoard, necessary restoration of the space and to build a secure display case which will preserve the coins and pot in controlled conditions. The hoard’s needs fit seemlessly with the museum’s. A month before the fundraiser was launched, the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery began an extensive refurbishment paid for by a £1.78 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The galleries were enlarged, the entrance improved and a new cafe was built. All together, this was a major upgrade for the small local museum, making it a fitting home for the Boldre Hoard and the extra eyeballs it is sure to draw. (Everybody loves a hoard, especially when it’s a local kid made good.)

The refurbished museum had its grand reopening on Saturday with the Boldre Hoard as its centerpiece and signature treasure. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu did the honors, officially opening the inauguration day festivities.

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Quilts made by men at war to go on display

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

Three years ago, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London restored and displayed a hand-made altar frontal that had been by intricately embroidered by 133 convalescing soldiers during World War I. Sewing was considered a highly effective form of occupational therapy for soldiers because it could be accomplished while seated, improved manual dexterity and mental focus. The notion of occupational therapy was birthed in the crucible of World War I which left so many men physically and psychologically disabled, but it was a new name for an old practice.

Soldiers and sailors have been stitching masterpieces of the sewing crafts for hundreds of years. It was a longstanding tradition that during lulls in fighting, while prisoners of war or over extended hospital visits, they would hand-stitch quilts, wool work seascapes and embroider their own uniforms. Sailors maintained ships’ sails as part of their duties and therefore had basic sewing skills. Soldiers didn’t have the same job requirement, so if they knew how to sew it was either fortuitous or professional; i.e., they had been tailors in civilian life and were often employed as regimental tailors in the military.

Some of the earliest surviving examples were made in the 18th century using the intarsia technique in which fabric pieces are cut in precise shapes and sewn together so that no seams show. These types of quilts are so difficult to produce that it’s likely they were created by professionals. The imagery is often related to the wars being fought and national identity — comrades, the fatherland, traditional folk tales, etc. The quilts produced in wartime by military men of all levels of stitchcraft experience often used uniform pieces, blankets and random snippets of whatever other textiles they could get their hands on to create geometric designs of dazzling intricacy.

The American Folk Art Museum in New York is putting on the first US exhibition of quilts made by fighting men in wartime from uniform fabric. Most of the quilts on view in the War and Pieced exhibition come from the private collection of Australian quilt expert, historian Dr. Annette Gero. Others are on loan from public and private collections. Many of them have never been publically displayed before.

Immigrant tailors, such as Hungarian-born Michael Zumpf, introduced the intarsia technique into Great Britain. Two masterworks, exhibited to great acclaim in London during the late nineteenth century, feature minutely detailed representations of British military and political leaders, and members of the House of Commons. These elaborate pictorial panels were made using popular etchings of those subjects as templates.

Perhaps the best-known quilts that were made by soldiers and regimental tailors are the complex geometrics fashioned from felted military uniforms. Hand-stitched by nineteenth-century British soldiers, sailors, and regimental tailors during periods of conflict in the Crimea, South Africa, and India, some of these mosaic-like quilts contain as many as twenty-five thousand pieces of fabric. They were once called “convalescent quilts,” it was believed they were made as occupational therapy by wounded soldiers recovering in hospitals. Quilts pieced in simple geometric patterns may indeed have been made in such circumstances, but it is now recognized that the most elaborate quilts were most probably stitched by tailors and soldiers to pass the time and stay out of mischief, to give as gifts to loved ones at home, or were made upon a soldier’s return.

“In the context of war, quiltmaking becomes a life-affirming testament to bravery, loyalty, and an act of redemption for darker human impulses enacted under dire circumstances,” says Stacy C. Hollander[, chief curator of the American Folk Art Museum]. “Memory and experience are fragmented and brilliantly reconstructed through tiny bits of cloth. The uniforms, associated with the best and worst of humanity, are thus transformed into testaments of sanity and beauty, even as the highly organized geometry grants the soldier an illusion of control over the predations of war in which he has both participated and witnessed.”

War and Pieced will run at the American Folk Art Museum from September 6th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018. Next year the exhibition will travel to the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska where it will run from the May 25th through September 16th, 2018.

But enough of my yakking. This post is all about the cornucopia of quiltly goodness and there’s so much more bounty to enjoy I had to put it after the jump to keep load times from going insane.

(more…)

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Britain’s first Roman fleet diploma goes on display

Friday, July 21st, 2017

The first complete Roman fleet diploma ever found in Britain has gone on display at Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology. The inscribed copper alloy plaques record the rights granted an honorably discharged sailor after many years of loyal service. The recipient of the fleet diploma, one Tigernos, is Britain’s first named sailor.

Roman Military Diplomas were the physical proof of rights granted to non-citizen soldiers to mark their honourable discharge on retirement after 26 years of service. This diploma was issued by the emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138-191) to Tigernos, a native of Lanchester, Co. Durham, in around AD 150. The diploma granted him and his descendants Roman citizenship and the legal right of marriage. To earn the diploma he had served in the Classis Germanica -the Roman fleet in Germany, most likely for 26 years, before being honourably discharged on his retirement.

It was discovered in February of last year by metal detectorist Mark Houston near Longovicium, the Roman fort in Lanchester, County Durham. Houston found the plates about eight inches below the surface in a spot where his detector had signalled loud and clear. He saw the tell-tale green of copper and cleaned around it, revealing a small stack of copper plates. He had no idea what it was at first, or even that it was ancient. He thought it might be the remains of a motorcycle battery or some other old piece of machinery.

So Houston dug them up, took them home and cleaned them. It was only when he put them on the window sill where the sunlight streamed over them that he saw there were letters engraved on the copper sheets. He took a closer look through a magnifying glass and realized it was Latin. Understanding that what he thought were old motorcycle parts could be ancient artifacts, Mark Houston contacted the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and reported his discovery. PAS experts and Dr. Roger Tomlin from Oxford University have been studying and conserving it ever since.

The thin sheets of copper alloy were originally two rectangular plates stitched together by metal wires threaded through holes in the plates. Over time, the two rectangles corroded and broke into eight fragments, so some areas of the inscription are damaged, missing or illegible. Researchers are still working out as much of the inscription as they can, but what they’ve already been about to transcribe and translate paints a detailed picture, listing names of military cohorts, commanders, governors and consuls as well as the recipient and his father.

The Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, son of the deified Hadrianus, grandson of the deified Trajanus conqueror of Parthia, great-grandson of the deified Nerva, pontifex maximus, in his 13th year of tribunician power [150 A.D.], twice acclaimed Imperator, four times consul, father of his country, has granted to the cavalrymen and infantrymen of the Germany Army Dutiful and Loyal (PF) who have served in the 4 alae and 14 cohorts which are called Noricorum, Sulpicia CR, Africorum Veterana, I Thracum, I Flavia Hispanorum, I Latobicorum et Varcianorum, I Pannoniorum et Dalmatarum, II Civium Romanorum (CR), I Raetorum, VI Brittonum PF, II Asturum PF, I Classica PF, III and VI Breucorum, I Lucensium PF, II Varcianorum, VI Raetorum, IV Thracum, and are in Lower Germany under Salvius Iulianus, who have served 25 years, likewise soldiers of the Fleet 26 years, and have been honourably discharged, whose names are written below, Roman citizenship to those who do not have it, and the right of legal marriage with the wives they had when citizenship was given to them, or with those they later marry, but only one each.

The 13th day before the Kalends of December [November 19] in the consulship of Gaius Curtius Justus and Gaius Julius Julianus.

To Velvotigernus son of Magiotigernus, a Briton, ex-private soldier of the German Fleet Dutiful and Loyal which Marcus Ulpius Ulpianus commands.

I love the “only one wife each” stipulation.

There are only 800 Roman fleet diplomas known to exist, and most of them are incomplete because the children of the recipient would break off pieces to use as proof of their citizenship. Because this is the only complete example found in Britain, it is of enormous archaeological and historical import. Even so, the plates fell through a loophole in the UK’s Treasure Act: the only complete Roman fleet diploma ever discovered in Britain is not made of precious metal, therefore it’s not official treasure and the finder can dispose of it as he wishes. This is the same loophole that allowed the spectacular Crosby-Garret helmet to be sold to the highest bidder at auction instead of in a museum. Thankfully in this case the finder agreed to sell the diploma plates to the Museum of Archaeology at Durham University and split the proceeds with the landowner.

As of July 20th, Velvotigernus’ fleet diploma is on permanent display the museum’s Palace Green Library.

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Michelangelo river god model restored

Saturday, July 15th, 2017

A rare and fragile model of a river god made by Michelangelo Buonarotti in around 1525 has been restored to its original condition and placed on public view after years in storage. Made out of wood, clay, sand, wool and oakum fibers on an iron wire framework, the model was an ephemeral work. These were not built to last; models were use objects meant to be discarded after the permanent marble sculptures were finished. In this case, Michelangelo never did get around to making the sculpture, so the model is all we have to show for it. It is one of very few life-sized models ever created by Michelangelo.

The statue in question was a river god or river allegory that was to recline on the right side at the foot of the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lord of Florence, Duke of Urbino and the father of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France. Michelangelo’s client, Pope Clement VII, insisted that he create life-sized models for the tomb sculptures in the (vain) hope that it would speed up production by allowing the master to delegate some of the execution to secondary artists without loss of quality. Another three river gods were planned for the base of the tomb, but Michelangelo only completed this model and the one for its twin on the left side. None of the finished sculptures of the river gods were ever made.

After he left Florence for Rome in 1534, the two models stayed in the New Sacristy of the San Lorenzo basilica, the grand chapel designed and sculpted by Michelangelo to house the palatial new Medici dynasty tombs, along with all the completed statuary. They were still there two decades later, but by the end of the 16th century, the right model was in the private collection of Cosimo I de’ Medici. The left model was lost. The only known version of it extant today is Michelangelo’s very rough work sketch in the British Museum.

In 1583, the surviving model was donated to the Academy of Art and Design which is today the oldest fine arts academy in the world, founded by Cosimo I in 1563. At the time of the donation, less than 60 years after it was made, the model had condition problems. The first recorded restoration of the work took place in 1590.

Over the centuries, the river god fell down an art historical memory hole until it was rediscovered in 1906 by German sculptor and long-time resident of Florence Adolf von Hildebrand and German art historian Adolf Gottschewski. The new attention the model received spurred the Academy to move it to the Galleria dell’Accademia where it was displayed near the David and other sculptures Michelangelo carved in marble.

The model was on display there until 1965 when it was moved to the Casa Buonarroti museum for its own preservation and to add to the museum’s collection of Michelangelo models. The Academy still owns the piece, however, and three years ago they engaged the services of Florence’s top restoration masters at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to stabilize the deteriorating model.They mended areas of the surface that had come apart and strengthened the structure to prepare it for future transport and exhibition. They also analyzed the dark paint that gave the work a bronzed effect and discovered it was a later alteration. Michelangelo’s original choice was the paint the model in lead white to make it look like the marble the finished product would be made out of and so that it would match the completed sculptures in the New Sacristy. Opificio conservators painstakingly removed the dark paint, revealing and restoring Michelangelo’s original white lead layer.

The restored model made its official debut at the Refectory of the Basilica of Santa Croce on July 11th. In September it will go on display at a major exhibition on the art of 16th century Florence at Palazzo Strozzi. After that, it will be on permanent view at the Academy of Art and Design.

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Pietà by pioneer Netherlandish painter loaned to Rijskmuseum

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

Johan Maelwael, also known by the French version of his name Jean Malouel, was born in Nijmegen in around 1365. Nijmegen was part of the Duchy of Guelders then (now the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands) and had just joined the Hanseatic League in 1364. The prosperity that came with the increase in trade and commerce engendered a flourishing of the arts. Johan came from an artistic family — his father and uncle were successful artists — and he trained in his father Willem’s workshop from an early age.

He started his professional career as a painter of heraldic imagery at the court of the Dukes of Guelders in his hometown of Nijmegen. That experience proved desirable and portable, and in 1396 he moved to Paris where he specialized in painting heraldic and armorial images for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France. Isabeau was a great patron of the arts who during this period had built something of a shadow court thanks to her husband’s increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness. (Whenever the King succumbed to one of his spells, which lasted months at a time, he did not recognize Isabeau and demanded that strange woman be removed from his presence.)

Maelwael’s work for the Queen lasted no more than a year, and by the summer of 1397 Maelwael was in Dijon, capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, where he was appointed court painter to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The appointment came with the rank of valet de chambre and a hefty salary. Maelwael would keep the job even after Philip’s death in 1404, remaining court painter to his son and successor John the Fearless.

At the Burgundy court, Maelwael again painted heraldic images on banners, pennants, flags and armour, but he also went further afield. Among other works, the dukes commissioned large-scale murals, devotional panel paintings, elaborate altarpieces for the Carthusian monastery of Champmol where Philip’s tomb was located, and the painting and gilding of sculptures. He experimented with new approaches and pioneered what would become known as the International Gothic style.

The greatest surviving example of this is a tondo known as La Grande Pietà, a tempera on wood panel painting that many art historians consider to be the first proper tondo of the Renaissance. The iconography is not typical of later Renaissance pietas because in addition to the dead Christ held by his disconsolate mother Mary, God the Father is also in the picture, holding up the body of his sacrificed Son. Two angels help hold up the body, and a four more balance out the composition on the left side, adding splashes of color and a variety of anguished facial expressions. On the far right is a facepalming St. John.

On the back of the round is an example of the specialty that launched Maelwael’s illustrious career: the coat of arms of Philip the Bold of Burgundy. This suggests the painting was commissioned by Philip before his death, and the unusual combination of a pieta and the Holy Trinity suggests it may have been intended for the Burgundy tombs at Champmol since the monastery was dedicated to the Trinity and the ducal family also evinced a particular devotion to the Trinity.

Besides the imagery, Maelwael also included unusual features in the technical aspects of the painting. The frame of the tondo was carved out of the wood panel, something I don’t recall seeing in any other example of the form. His use of transparent glazes over the tempera was also ground-breaking. Early Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck, who a decade after Maelwael’s death followed in his footsteps as painter to the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Bold, in his time), would take those transparent glazes and run with them.

One of the reasons the tondo is so special is that it is one of very few extant works that can be conclusively attributed to Johan Maelwael. Acquired by the Louvre in 1864, La Grande Pietà is one of the treasures of the museum’s early Flemish collection. It hasn’t left Paris since 1962, but come this fall, the greatest surviving masterpiece of the first painter of the Northern Renaissance will be heading to the Netherlands for the first time in its existence when it goes on display at the Rijksmuseum.

At the Burgundian court, Maelwael painted flags, banners and armour; he designed patterns for fabrics; he executed large religious paintings; he created refined miniatures in illuminated manuscripts; he decorated sculptures with gold-leaf and color and he painted small devotional pieces and portraits. Around 1400 Maelwael introduced his three talented nephews as miniature painters in France: the legendary Limbourg brothers Herman, Johan and Paul.

For the first time, Maelwael’s paintings will be exhibited alongside medieval art treasures, manuscripts, precious metalwork and sculpture – from among others, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the MET in New York and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Maelwael’s paintings will be juxtaposed not only with the sculpture of his contemporaries Claus Sluter and Claes van Werve, but also with the richly decorated illuminated manuscripts of the Limbourg brothers.

The Johan Maelwael exhibition will run at the Rijksmuseum from October 6th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

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Oldest madeira collection found in New Jersey museum

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

Workers renovating Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, discovered a rare collection of Madeira wines, some dating back to Colonial times. Museum staff knew the Kean family had wine storage shelves in the cellar, but they were obscured by a plaster and plywood wall built during Prohibition. When workers broke through the wall and the locked wooden cage behind it, they found a collection of 18th and 19th century wines far larger than they realized. There are three cases containing more than 50 bottles of Madeira, the oldest of which date to 1796. The attic held an unexpected wine cache as well, not in bottles but in 42 demijohns dating to the 1820s. It’s the oldest and largest known collection of Madeira in the United States.

The museum staffers cataloged the cases and jugs of Madeira as they were discovered. While some of the stock needed to be researched online, most of the wine was still labeled with handwritten tags, or could be looked up in the thousands of Liberty Hall documents dating more than 200 years.

“We have the receipts from the liquor store, or the liquor distributor in New York, in Elizabeth or wherever,” [Liberty Hall director of operations Bill] Schroh said. “We can also trace the purchaser, when it was purchased and who it was purchased from.”

Part of the research showed some of the Madeira was imported by Robert Lenox, a millionaire merchant from New York who owned land in the heart of Harlem, which is where the borough’s main avenue gets its name.

Liberty Hall was the country home of William Livingston, scion of a prominent New York family and a successful lawyer. When he bought the land in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), New Jersey, he planned to retire to the estate. He was intimately involved in the design of the 14-room Georgian home and of the landscaping and orchards on the 120-acre property. He and his wife settled in to their happy retirement home in 1773, but Livingston’s retirement wouldn’t even last a full year. Revolution pulled him back into political and military action. He was a delegate to both Continental Congresses, was a general in the New Jersey militia and was New Jersey’s first elected governor in 1776.

Livingston was only able to return to Liberty Hall in 1783 and the estate had been rudely treated by the British who trashed the place on the regular searching for him when he was a wanted man. American soldiers also looted the home. Livingston lovingly repaired the home and gardens, even as he continued to serve as governor until his death in 1790.

The hall was purchased by Peter Kean, the son of Livingston’s niece Susan, in 1811. Peter and his mother maintained the estate for the next 22 years. In 1833, Susan’s grandson Colonel John Kean inherited it and over the course of six decades, transformed the Georgian home into a 50-room Victorian mansion. It has remained in the Kean family who have worked to preserve it and open it to the public as a museum displaying original artifacts from the Livingston and Kean families in rooms dedicated to different time periods.

It seems the wines were collected by both the Livingstons and the Keans.

Some of the original Madeira stock was shipped to the second generation who lived at Liberty Hall, in anticipation of John Adams’ presidency. Although Liberty Hall President John Kean was well aware of the wine collection, he couldn’t have imagined its historical significance.

“We knew there was a lot of liquor down here, but we had no idea as to the age of it,” said Kean, first cousin to New Jersey’s former governor. “I think the most exciting part of it was to find liquor, or Madeira in this case, that goes back so far. And then trying to trace why it was here and who owned it.”

Madeira was a popular tipple for the early American upper crust, because unlike most wines at that time, it can take a lot of jostling of the kind sure to be experienced on a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage. The fortified dessert wine also lasts far longer than other wines without spoiling or turning to vinegar. In the 18th century, the 13 colonies bought 95% of the Madeira produced on the Portuguese archipelago and gentlemen of wealth and good taste would have a selection of Madeiras in their cellars (or attics). The Liberty Hall collection has six different kinds of Madeira.

The newly liberated cellar space with its original wooden shelves, now restored and structurally reinforced, is open to the public, along with some of the bottles and demijohns. John Kean had the opportunity to taste a sample from one of the Madeiras and he said it tasted fine, like a sweet sherry. The bottles from 1796 have not been sampled. They might be whipped out for an appropriate special occasion in the future: a visit from the President of Portugal.

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